Tajik officials say eight police officers and nine alleged assailants have been killed in attacks in and around the capital, in attacks the government blamed on a deputy defense minister.
The Interior Ministry website said a “terrorist group” led by Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, also known as Hoji Halim, launched a predawn attack on September 4 on the Vahdat district police headquarters and later clashed with security forces near the Dushanbe International Airport.
Police say nine attackers were killed by security forces and six others were detained. Authorities say a search operation is under way to arrest Nazarzoda, who escaped from the scene.
President Emomali Rakhmon dismissed Nazarzoda earlier on September 4 for “committing a crime.”
Nazarzoda, a former Islamic opposition commander and member of the recently banned Islamic Renaissance Party, had joined the security forces in June 1997 when the government and the opposition signed a peace accord to end the five-year civil war.
The two attacks came amid tension over the prohibition of the predominantly Muslim country’s only registered Islamic political party and the brutal beating of a 23-year-old student, allegedly by police who were trying to force him to shave his beard.
The Interior Ministry said the attack in Vahdat, 20 kilometers east of Dushanbe, was not connected to the beating of Umar Bobojonov, who is in a local hospital and has not regained consciousness.
Tajikistan’s staunchly secular government shows little tolerance for anything it perceives as a potential sign of religious extremism, and the authorities occasionally round up bearded men to force them to shave or present them with hefty fines. Bobojonov’s case sparked outrage in Vahdat.
The U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe said the significance of the clashes was unclear, but “they may be precursors to other acts of violence.” The embassy closed down and advised embassy staff not to go out or send their children to school.
Fears Of Extremism
Amid long-standing concerns about a spillover of violence from Afghanistan, and newer worries about Tajiks travelling back from Syria after fighting alongside Islamic State militants, the long-ruling Rahmon has taken steps to suppress everyday expressions of faith.
In recent months, the government has banned head scarves for schoolgirls, barred minors from mosques, and forced thousands of students to return home from Islamic schools abroad.
On August 28, the government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan — ex-Soviet Central Asia’s only registered Islamic party — and gave its leaders 10 days to halt all activities.
The party played an important part in Tajikistan’s devastating 1992-97 civil war, and had been in parliament since the 1990s. It was pushed out of the legislature in a March 1 vote marred by fraud allegations after coming under increasing pressure from the authorities.
At Friday Prayers on September 4 in Dushanbe’s Central Mosque, Tajikistan’s Grand Mufti Saidmuqarram Abdulqodirzoda condemned the party, accusing it of attempts to incite mass disorder across the country. He did not mention the attacks or other specific incidents.
Party leaders and activists say the ban is politically motivated. In March, Rahmon called on prominent citizens in the ex-Soviet republic to outline a long-term “development concept” for Tajikistan focusing on “secularism and national and secular thinking.”